| Sep 15, 2017
For years, security experts have been fearing “The Big One.” Not terrorist incidents, bombs, or hurricanes—their warnings have been centered on cyberattacks. And now, one of the largest and potentially most damaging data breaches ever has occurred, at the credit-reporting company Equifax. The company revealed that personal information from about 143 million consumers—possibly including Social Security numbers, addresses, and even credit card numbers—was stolen. The scale of this breach is hard to overestimate. It could ultimately affect more than half of the adult population of the United States.
So what will that impact be, and how might all of that illegally obtained personal info be misused? The short answer is that no one knows—yet. But the theft has all sorts of repercussions for those trying to get a new credit card, pass a security check for a new job—or, most devastating of all, get a mortgage. And with people’s information floating around, perhaps even being sold at this very moment on the dark web, those repercussions could haunt them for years, possibly decades.
“Bar none, this is the worst data breach we’ve ever had,” says identity theft expert Rob Douglas. “This is the one everyone worried about.”
The biggest fears center around identity theft on an epic scale. It isn’t tough to conjure up worst-case scenarios. Think about it: Bad guys with all of someone’s information could, at least theoretically, try to buy a home under that person’s name. It’s more likely, though, they would use those stolen credit card numbers—or use SSNs to open up new credit cards—and rack up lots of debt in that unsuspecting victim’s name. And that damage could make it much harder for someone to qualify for a mortgage or refinance an existing mortgage.
That’s because those fraudulently created debts could vastly increase someone’s debt-to-income ratio. Loan officers look very carefully at that ratio when determining whether someone qualifies for a loan and how big that loan should be.
“If you have your identity stolen, it causes a lot of problems,” says Don Frommeyer, a mortgage loan officer at Marine Bank in Indianapolis. He’s had clients who have endured it, and while it didn’t stop them from eventually getting the loans, it did delay the process. “You have to prove it wasn’t you.”
What you need to do now to protect yourself
There is one primary thing you need to do to protect yourself and your finances. And you need to do it now.
First, check to see if you were in fact affected by the Equifax breach (you can do so online at https://trustedidpremier.com/eligibility/eligibility.html).If you have been affected, mortgage and credit experts suggest you should contact each of the big credit-reporting companies immediately to freeze your credit. You can do so online or by calling them. Here are the numbers:
There are no downsides to this: You can still use your credit cards with the freezes on. But no one will be able to check credit scores and personal information without your permission—so no bad apples can open up fraudulent new cards or get loans under your name. And you can undo the freezes at any time—typically for a small fee.
Folks should continually monitor their credit as well, says Pete Mills, senior vice president of residential policy at the Mortgage Bankers Association, an industry group based in Washington, DC.
“It might be worth signing up for a credit monitoring service,” he says. “It’s certainly easier to undo a fraudulent account within a few days” than to wait a few months to address multiple new lines of credit.
Identity theft expert Douglas expects there will be an uptick in fraudulent mortgage and refinance applications as a result of the Equifax breach. This could mean loan officers might have to use additional vetting procedures to ensure applicants are who they say they are. And that could potentially slow down how long it takes to get a loan and even cost consumers more.
But it’s too early to know the true repercussions of this massive cybersecurity breakdown.
“It’s not a breach where they just got a Social Security number or another breach where they just got a credit card number. Here, they got the whole enchilada,” Douglas says. Having so much information about individual consumers makes it that much easier for thieves to steal someone’s identity. “This is now a danger for a lifetime.”